Originally, this piece was to be about the lack of respect the Bengals are experiencing right now but that's an old and tired play and since I respect them still, why indulge the opposition with the fight they seek?
Instead, we look ahead to a vital game against a beatable opponent, one that could serve as a healing win and bolster the team's confidence, but one that I don't think will be an easy stroll by any stretch.
The Vikings didn't like any of their quarterbacks earlier in the season, They spun the carousel a couple of times with Matt Cassel and Christian Ponder, brought in Josh Freeman for a go at it, and when no immediate answer surfaced, they settled on Cassel in the end for better or worse. Since the position has stabilized, the offense has improved and the significant talent that exists outside of the quarterback is beginning to come to light.
This is a classic bad-team tale. The 2002 Bengals come to mind with Gus Frerrote, Akili Smith and Jon Kitna battling for a job and costing the team wins in the process. They settled on Kitna and he gave Chad Johnson wings.
It makes sense that the worst teams would be better at the end of the year. If a team is bad because of injuries to key spots, or because their roster was composed with too much youth and inexperience, then at this point, the backups and rookies know the playbook and probably have had ample reps as well. The players and coaches better understand each other. These are eliminated from the playoffs, yes, but there is money to be made and that still matters in this game.
Minnesota has quality players even without Adrian Peterson. Toby Gerhart is a bruiser with field vision, the trio of Greg Jennings, Cordarrelle Patterson, and our boy, Jerome Simpson make for at least a speedy and athletic receiving corps, and Cassel himself has been a steady hand and looked particularly good last week.
Despite all of that, the Vikings are still a bad team.
Last week, they played in their comfortable dome and ran their offense like it was practice against Philadelphia. The week before that they played in a snow storm with the fury of planet Hoth and mightily struggled for 58 minutes (the last two were nuts!). This week, it won't be freezing but wet and windy, so I expect something in between in terms of production.
Obviously, the first thing anybody ever wants to do against Minnesota is contain Adrian Peterson who is widely considered the undisputed champ of running backs of his generation. Assuming everyone agrees with this approach, then one must decide how to take on the Vikings passing game. Philadelphia applied minimal pressure and dared Cassel to throw into coverage. The Ravens were far more aggressive with their blitz schemes and had more success.
Pressure on the quarterback has subsided over the past two weeks for the Bengals, and the expectations for the front four are high even without Geno Atkins, but perhaps Mike Zimmer has blitzed less often because of the type of quarterback he's faced. Ben Roethlisberger and Andrew Luck are players who thrive when plans go awry. Both move around well and both keep their eyes downfield. Matt Cassel is not that kind of person.
Cassel seems like a very mechanical player. When he drops back five steps, plants his back foot, takes one hop and then fires, he is a quality player, but the process must be clean as a whistle or else his game breaks down rapidly. When he scrambles he either puts his head down and hopes for the best or looks to throw the ball out of bounds. Rattling him seems very achievable with the right mixture of blitzes.
His delivery is also noticeably mechanical and is therefore slow. When he drops his shoulder to throw, there is an extra hitch or two before the ball comes out allowing the defense an extra nanosecond of reaction, which can make all the difference. I could see corners wanting to take some risks against a player like that. If Cassel is not comfortable in the pocket, the secondary can become even more chancy. Look for a pick six, maybe two.
On defense, the Vikings aren't bad. Nick Foles ran on them well last week, but Andy Dalton is not the same threat with his legs. Their front four seems rather stout and their linebackers tackle well. Their linebackers also cover well, but in a reverse way, I think this is the element that will allow the Bengals to win.
The Vikings put a lot of trust in their linebackers covering people and for good reason, but a team like the Bengals are built for mismatches like this. They have the big, strong guy in Jermaine Gresham, the big, fast guy in Tyler Eifert, the little, strong guy in Gio Bernard, and the little, fast guy in Andrew Hawkins. All are dangerous in space and all bring different weaponry to the table. Finding sensible ways to get these men the ball against man coverage is the way to win. Simply checking off to underneath targets can allow for easy first downs. Exploit the overconfidence the Vikings may have in their linebackers by using the odd cast of complimentary players around A.J. Green and the Bengals offense should enjoy another nice day at home.
Everyone is a little tense right now about the very near future, but for a moment, let's zoom back a frame and look at a bigger picture. Here is a team with a 9-5 record, winners of three of their last four and scorers of over 40 points three home games in a row. Here is a team that lost last week to a divisional rival on the road thanks to two first-quarter punting snafus. Here is a team with signature wins over New England, Indianapolis, and Green Bay. Yet, despite all of their success, the world waits for the Bengals to fail and pounce on them every time they do.
This team is still a quality one made up of solid professionals; that didn't change from Sunday night to Monday morning. They have risen up from a bad team, to an average team, to a good one. The organization has built well for the last four years and it's paying off. What more must they do?
I know that answer and it begins on Sunday.
Bengals 30, Vikings, 24
Mojokong-find me in the cheap seats chanting "dome team!".